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  • Losing Faceoffs Looked Like Minnesota's Fatal Flaw. Why Isn't It For the Panthers?

    Image courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA Today Sports
    Tony Abbott

    On Wednesday night, Matthew Tkachuk punched the Florida Panthers' ticket into the Stanley Cup Final. The Wild Card Cats had only 92 standings points during the regular season, the fewest of any playoff team. Even one fewer point than the Calgary Flames, who missed the playoffs out West. But thanks to their superstar's heroics and a Sergei Bobrovsky renaissance, they've reached their first Cup Final since a Cinderella run in 1996.

    Meanwhile, the Minnesota Wild, who finished with 103 points in the standings, got knocked out by the Dallas Stars in Round 1. Why? A big reason was how poorly Minnesota performed on faceoffs. The Wild only won 43.7% of their draws against the Stars, and paid for it dearly. Dallas bounced them easily in six games. Only one playoff team finished worse than them in the faceoff dot this postseason.

    If only they were more like the Florida Panthers' centers, who stand at... 14th of the 16 playoff teams, winning 44.2% of their faceoffs?

    What the heck?

    It's hard to watch a TV hockey broadcast without being inundated with Faceoff Propaganda. It's an easy-to-track stat that doesn't have the subjectivity of, say, scoring chances, or the abstraction of expected goals. You win a faceoff, or you don't, and hey, you can even bet on them! Joel Eriksson Ek is going against Roope Hintz, and Eriksson Ek has a 48.7% chance of taking this one, you say? We like those odds!

    There's been a years-long panic about the Wild's faceoff woes. In his prime, Mikko Koivu was their ace faceoff-taker. In 2015-16 (along with Jarret Stoll and Erik Haula) and 2016-17 (with Haula and a Martin Hanzal cameo), the Wild finished third and sixth in the NHL in faceoff percentage, respectively.

    Since then, it's been a long decline. Here are the year-by-year stats and rankings for Minnesota:

    2015-16: 52.5% (3rd)
    2016-17: 51.9% (6th)
    2017-18: 49.8% (16th)
    2018-19: 49.4% (22nd)
    2019-20: 48.4% (27th)
    2020-21: 46.5% (28th)
    2021-22: 47.6% (27th)
    2022-23: 47.7% (26th)

    That all looks bad, and maybe it is? Kind of? It's not ideal, but the gap between their best showing and worst during that eight-year span is 6%. Minnesota partook in about 67 faceoffs per game this year. If you bumped their percentage up by six full points, they'd have been third in the NHL. How many faceoff wins per game would that bump translate to?


    While the Wild are licking their wounds over lost faceoffs, the Panthers are licking their opponents despite them. During the seven games where they stunned the Boston Bruins in Round 1, Florida only won 46.2% of their draws. They just swept the Carolina Hurricanes despite taking just 45.6% of the faceoff share. And perhaps most staggering of all, they shocked the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games with just 39.1% of the faceoffs -- much, much worse than Minnesota's showing against the Stars.

    You can argue that faceoffs are more important on special teams, perhaps, and they particularly mattered in Minnesota's series against Dallas. The Wild only won 29.1% of their faceoffs while on the penalty kill. The Stars scored nine power play goals in their series, with five coming within 17 seconds of Minnesota losing a faceoff.

    Again, not ideal, but what's the bigger issue? The faceoffs, or the lackluster penalty killing?

    Two goals came within a half-minute of Minnesota winning a draw. In Game 2, Minnesota won the faceoff on Tyler Seguin's power play goal, only to have Jason Robertson and Miro Heiskanen set up 20 seconds later with no pressure, and Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba allowing Seguin to get right into Marc-Andre Fleury's kitchen.

    The next power play goal had Sam Steel win the draw, only for Roope Hintz to break Jared Spurgeon's ankles at the blue line and dish a pass to Jamie Benn for a goal 19 seconds after. Even their third power play tally that game saw Minnesota lose the faceoff but have the puck twice — giving it away both times — before Hintz cashed in his hat trick.

    Even one of those five goals that came within 17 seconds of a faceoff loss is somewhat misleading, as Seguin's power play goal in Game 4 came 15 seconds after Minnesota losing a neutral-zone faceoff. There were plenty of opportunities to stop a goal from happening after that draw. 

    There are three giant Wild miscues here. Hintz is able to draw both Dumba and Freddy Gaudreau to him before passing to Benn for an uncontested entry. By the net, Jake Middleton lays out to get in a passing lane, but can't find it, giving Seguin a clean shot while Marcus Johansson loses his stick completely and can only helplessly chase Seguin to the slot.

    Sure, they lost the draw, but if you lose a coin flip minutes before tripping on a curb, then get hit by a car walking into traffic, then fall into an open manhole, is it because you lost the coin flip? Or is it because you didn't pay attention to a few other details?

    Even on some of the goals that have a much cleaner line of logic from lost faceoff to power play goal, the Wild were ineffective way beyond not getting a draw. Robertson's Game 5 power play goal sees Minnesota allow Dallas to zip the puck around the perimeter nearly uncontested. Johansson is just zipping around from station to station a half step behind, while no one else is really disrupting passing or shooting lanes.

    Is it the faceoffs, or was this just a bad performance all around by Gaudreau and Johansson? After all, both of them are tied for fourth in the entire playoffs with six goals against while shorthanded this postseason. It's easy to point to Gaudreau's 25% success rate (4-for-16) in the dot as a reason why.

    But that doesn't explain why Connor Dewar, who won just two of his seven faceoffs (28.6%), only surrendered one power-play goal. Especially since the only goal Dallas scored against him on the man advantage was after Dewar won a draw.

    Bobrovsky playing out of his mind helps, of course. But Florida showed that Minnesota could've been competent on the penalty kill without winning faceoffs. Between their Toronto and Carolina series, the Panthers went 14-for-39 on shorthanded faceoffs (35.9%). They surrendered four goals, total, throughout those series. If you gave Minnesota that same success rate in their 37 shorthanded draws, they'd have 13 wins out on 37 tries, as opposed to their 11. 

    We're talking about the difference between two faceoffs. Pick whichever two draws you want, and change them from losses to wins. Did you stop the penalty kill from being bad? Did you change the tenor of the series? No.

    It makes for a good talking point, and a concrete number for the coaching staff and players to try to improve, but the fact is that the Wild have a lot more things going against them than winning four fewer faceoffs per game than the top teams in the league. Maybe they're better served trying to clean up the stuff that happens after the faceoff instead.

    All faceoff data via NHL.com, all other data via Evolving-Hockey.

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    Florida has obviously been playing very good hockey. They're getting performances from every part of their team and they have a Cup winning coach. Toronto looked past them and it allowed Florida to capture even more momentum after having beat Boston. They have a belief in themselves along with their goalie and run, it's made them successful.

    The Wild have never been able to generate or capture any momentum. In the past when teams like LA or Ottawa went deep they were riding a wave they generated for themselves. MN has only done that once when Bruno was leading the team and they beat Roy and the Avs.

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    Yeah, I mean the odds are not in your favor if you lose a lot of face offs. But as the article states there are ways to overcome those odds and no doubt Dallas had some puck luck handed to them by the Wild that won them a game the Wild could have won. We need to be healthy and stay healthy going into the play offs the next two years to have a good chance of making it past round one, plain and simple. Year two we should have the opportunity to pick up players with term left on their contract that some teams can’t afford. I hope Billy is planning for it.

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    While the stat seems to be black and white and concrete, I'd argue it is not. There's quite a difference between clean wins and contested wins. Clean wins, typically are way more dangerous. On the wins on the PP that resulted in the quick goals, those were clean wins by Dallas, quickly moved passes and boom, back of the net. We faired much better with contested wins (or losses in our case).

    So, faceoff %, just deals with wins and losses. I wouldn't mind being a 43% team if 33% of that were clean wins and only 10% were contested, and the opponents only had 20% clean wins and 37% were contested wins. But, you never hear about that type of distribution because it doesn't make for good tv stats and columns, it's too complex. I guess that's why +/- has been so maligned. So, faceoff % is a simple summary that we can look at for a ballpark number, but to really get the full picture, we'd need to dive in deeper.

    Now, based upon that, I'd argue from the eye test that we are losing a lot more faceoffs clean than we are winning. To me, it seems close to a 2/1 margin. And, on top of that, when we win them, we tend to turn it over quicker than our opponents due, specifically the opponents in the top 10 of the league. 

    When it came on the PK, it was bingo-bango-bongo-back of the net. You could argue that the PK never had time to set up. But, if you're consistently getting owned in the dot, that's not an excuse, you need to plan for that scenario, and I think this is what Tony's getting at. It's more than just faceoff losses. If a successful kill is dependent on the 1st faceoff win, a coin flip, then what do you have? There's a lot more here than just faceoffs. Now, when we went on that streak in March, we won a lot of 1st faceoffs on the kill. We also had our full killers that were good units, and knew where each other was going to be, Johansson didn't have that same cohesion as a late add. Duhaime/Dewar worked together just fine.

    I do think that there was a combination of problems with those quick goals. 

    1. Faceoff is lost
    2. Forwards don't get to their lanes
    3. Defenders can't defend front of net because they're too small/weak

    I believe Spurgeon-Brodin and Dumba-Middleton were the normal pairs, and Faber with his 2 NHL games of experience became 1 of those guys. In this scenario, really only Middleton has the size/strength to defend this, and he was in the box sometimes. Brodin and Spurgeon have exceptional sticks, but when it comes to boxing out, they are at a disadvantage. Dumba was just small even though he plays bigger than he is. We may have had a better showing had we still had the Cole-Soucy pairing on the back end. We may also have missed Merrill's play on the PK.

    We also need to give Dallas some credit on this, they knew how and where to attack. Evason and the ST coach never adjusted. This is why I'm hoping for brand new assistants this year. We've got to get our STs up to par, and really need an expert in both on the bench. Do we have room for 4 guys back there? We need a forward coach and defense coach too. Maybe the ST guy and trainer can hang out just inside the tunnel? We have a huge problem making adjustments and this needs to be addressed!

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    Great analysis Tony.  The talking heads love easy stats without analyzing if they mean anything.


    Hockey is a game where statistics tend to lie the most.

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    I think the truth is found using all the information. These numbers are good but also when you look at the situations there’s things that are noteworthy that cannot be quantified with numbers. For example Stone played on the Ottawa team that went deep before losing to Pittsburgh and he was getting big goals. The same player keeps ending up back in the Conference finals each year seems like. Likewise, Tkachuk has been that way for Florida. Hintz did it to the Wild but Vegas has been able to shut him down the way #97 has been somewhat ruled out in series. The other thing is the goaltending. Oettinger wasn’t so much better than Gustavsson but the Wild couldn’t get the key goals when needed and they lost Game 4 in a way that sucked the life out of them rather than giving them a springboard to launch from. Those are the intangibles of hockey playoffs that you need to find. Every year the Cup winning team has a similar recipe of elements. One is a good roster and GM who has setup the group to win. The other is a coach who gets the most from his group while gaming against the other team’s coaches. Finally are the exceptional performances delivered by the spotlight players. Every single Cup team you can find examples of this. The teams that don’t have the recipe or find the ingredients lose the big cook-off. 

    You might make a great batch of Chili that delivers heartburn and farts with the top of the class but only one can win the prize.😋

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